Failure to Launch Syndrome: What It Is and Why Wealthy Families Are Susceptible

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I often work with people who have mental illness and substance use disorders. But one syndrome is surprisingly common in the children of high-net worth parents: “failure to launch.”

While failure to launch is not an official mental health diagnosis, it refers to young adults who remain dependent on their parents rather than establishing separate and independent lives as self-sufficient adults. The syndrome is often associated with other mental health struggles including anxiety, depression, and addiction.

To educate others about failure to launch syndrome, how it's treated, and what can be done to prevent it, I asked Rachele Vogel, Psy.D., an expert in behavioral health, to share her insights.

John Samuels: How do you define failure to launch?

Rachele Vogel: I consider someone struggling with failure to launch as an individual developmentally stalled in adolescence – someone who has not transitioned successfully into adulthood from a place of autonomy, self-regulation, and independence.

Who is susceptible to failure to launch syndrome?

It tends to occur in people who have struggled to complete school or hold down a job after school, who struggled to maintain close friendships and are isolated, who struggled with cannabis and gaming addictions, who live with parents who meet all of their basics needs for them (or individuals who live independently with access to endless resources), and who lack motivation for change.

It's most common in kids who lack a sense of identity or passion, struggle with anxiety and/or depression, and grow up in an environment where parents/caregivers do everything for them. Anxiety is unpleasant — if a kid is conditioned to never being uncomfortable, he or she isn't suddenly going to wake up ready to take on the world.

Kids need to make mistakes and be taught how to care for themselves. Life is uncomfortable, and struggle is part of the journey for identity development. Limits are loving. A kid who has been sheltered from the stress and anxiety inherent to life, social interaction, decision-making, heartbreak, hearing “no,” and not getting what they want, is going to have a hard time in the real world. Helicopter parenting promotes failure to launch.